Review
Experts size up Bihar’s advances, its many failures, offer strange cures, weigh hopes, and hark back to a golden past
The New Bihar
The New Bihar
By Edited By N.K. Singh and Nicholas Stern
HarperCollins | Pages: 387 | Rs. 699

Explaining the enigma that is Bihar was never easy, even for a son of the soil like late Arvind Narayan Das, whose Republic of Bihar came out over twenty years ago, when the state was deemed to be beyond redemption despite tall claims of an imminent industrial revival. The task in 2012-13—when Bihar and its chief minister are being hailed all around for providing an alternative development model— remains equally difficult. How, after all, does one explain sustained economic growth in a state which has no industrial base, no electricity and no mineral reserve; where education and public health are still in a mess and, even more strangely, where agriculture’s share in the state GDP has been steadily declining even as 80 per cent of its population continue to be dependent on it? Add to this a year marked by devastating floods and two years of drought during the last eight years, and the miraculous growth starts making less sense.

The book acknowledges that a construction boom and an equally dramatic increase in trade, hotels and eating joints are primarily responsible for the turnaround in Bihar during this period but falls short of explaining how they constitute a ‘Bihar model’, or how the growth can be attributed to what one of the editors, N.K. Singh, calls “Nitishnomics”. Rich in data, the book nevertheless provides considerable evidence of poor governance in the state, hints at leakage of public funds, points to rampant theft of electricity that the state buys from outside and is upfront about the pathetic state of education, health and infrastructure.

On the other hand, there is consensus that a manifold increase in public expenditure, improved law and order, tra­­nsparency in administration, crackdown, howsoever selective, on corruption, the Right to Service Act etc facilitated growth and investment and boosted the confidence of the people. One is, how­ever, not so sure if they adequately and convincingly explain the ‘turnaro­und’.

Singh in his introduction poses an interesting question. Was Bihar killed by outside forces or did it commit suicide? While an economic slide is invariably attributable to a combination of factors, the ess­ays do not favour any particular explanation. Lord Karan Bil­imoria, British entrepreneur, who writes an effusive chapter on his foray into Bihar with his Cobra beer, does not explain the riddle either. Because of the poor quality of the barley grown in Bihar, his brewery transports them all the way from Haryana. Since there is no electricity, the brewery runs on diesel generators. Yet the going has been so good that United Breweries and the international brand Carlsberg followed him to Bihar.

M.S. Swaminathan’s essay on ‘Agri­culture in the time of climate change’ says little on Bihar. Nandan Nilekani does not discuss why the Aadhaar project failed to take off in the state. K.V. Kamath writes on the role of e-governance, but says little on the Bihar experience. On top of it all, Tarun Das, while writing on the way forward, makes the surreal suggestion that all Bihar towns be connected by air and provisions made for Boeing 737s to land. His other suggestions include a partnership with Singa­pore for best practices and developing the state as a ‘world class’ training centre.

There are other insightful analyses which show the state with all its warts. Prachi Mishra’s essay on higher education in Bihar shows up the gap between inputs and outputs. Arvind Panagariya discusses outmigration and the role of remittances. Yoginder Alagh points out that Bihar’s milk production trebled in just over five years. Alakh Narayan Sha­rma notes that while there has been gro­wth in the number of primary schools, the number of upper primaries and secondary schools has not grown. A survey of women from 250 villages in Purnia, home district of Nandu Babu (as N.K. Singh is popularly known), writes Rukmini Banerji, revealed that mothers of children aged four to eight took no int­erest in their schoolwork, par­tly explaining the poor learning standards.

Contributors, not surprisingly, pay tributes to the wonder that was Bihar. Ama­rtya Sen recalls Chinese traveler Fa-Hien in the fifth century reporting adm­iringly of the free medical service for all in Pataliputra. Contributions of Arya­bh­atta, Kautilya and Sher Shah Suri are ack­n­owledged and  the Magadh empire uni­­ting India is alluded to, though Sha­n­kar Acharya finds no notable achievem­ent of Bihar in India’s history since 550 AD.

For the sake of the people in the third most populous state in the country, one hopes that Bihar’s growth story does not just remain a happy interlude.

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